Tufts President Responds to Mounting Pressure to Cut Ties to OxyContin Maker

An activist group at Tufts University is pushing leadership to cut the university's ties with Purdue Pharmaceuticals and the Sackler family

What to Know

  • Tufts University is facing backlash from students, faculty and community members for accepting money from the Sackler family.
  • The Sackler family founded Purdue Pharmaceuticals, which has been accused of misleading others about the addictive nature of OxyContin.
  • Purdue Pharmaceuticals is facing nearly 2,000 lawsuits nationwide alleging the company aggressively marketed the opioid, downplayed risk.

Tufts University President Anthony Monaco responded Monday to mounting pressure from the Tufts community to cut ties with Purdue Pharmaceuticals and the Sackler family, the makers of OxyContin accused of drug pushing and jumpstarting the opioid epidemic.

Monaco announced in an email to the Tufts community that Donald K. Stern, former U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts, would lead a previously announced investigation into Tuft’s involvement with Purdue and the Sackler family.

"The review will determine if we adhered to our policies and if our policies adopted best practices with respect to academic and research integrity and conflicts of interest in accepting those funds," Monaco wrote. "Attorney Stern will present his findings with a team of academic leaders. Together they will develop recommendations for the future which will be shared with our community."

Currently, Tufts University has a graduate biomedical school and building named after Arthur, Mortimer and Raymond Sackler. Raymond's son, Richard Sackler, is one of the key people implicated in Purdue’s promotion of OxyContin in the 1990s.

While the building and school were named in the early 1980s, before the introduction of OxyContin, since that time, Tufts has accepted monetary gifts and grants from the Sacklers, as well as Purdue Pharma. 

The Stamford, Connecticut-based company is currently facing over 2,000 lawsuits nationwide that allege the company marketed OxyContin to doctors aggressively, downplaying the risk of addiction and encouraging higher doses. It reached a historic settlement Tuesday with the state of Oklahoma worth $270 million.

Cheryl Juaire lost her 23-year-old son to a drug overdose years ago. She's now taking on the drug company and the Sacklers.
"To say that our lives have been shattered is an understatement," said Juaire. "They need to be held accountable. The country needs to see what they’ve done."
With the Sackler name gracing world renowned museums and local colleges like Tufts and Harvard, Juane is writing them to ask the name be removed.
"They need to be held accountable. The country needs to see what they've done," she said.

Cheryl Juaire lost her 23-year-old son to a drug overdose years ago. She's now taking on the drug company and the Sacklers.

"To say that our lives have been shattered is an understatement," said Juaire. "They need to be held accountable. The country needs to see what they’ve done."

With the Sackler name gracing world renowned museums and local colleges like Tufts and Harvard, Juane is writing them to ask the name be removed.

"They need to be held accountable. The country needs to see what they've done," she said.

"Since its founding in 1852, Tufts has sought to advance a mission of academic excellence and integrity," Monaco wrote. "I am committed to those principles and will implement any changes that are necessary to ensure our adherence to them going forward."

Monaco’s email responds to a university-wide initiative by Tufts community members to hold the university accountable for its involvement with the Sackler family.

This coordinated effort by students, faculty, alumni and other community members began in January with the publishing of two op-eds, one in the Sackler School newsletter and one in the student newspaper, in response to Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Healey’s lawsuit against Purdue.

Both articles detailed the school’s troubling history with the Sackler family and Purdue, helping raise awareness in the Tufts community about the issue.

Some of the most concerning allegations regard Purdue’s involvement with Tuft’s master’s degree program in Pain Research, Education and Policy, a program the company gave the university the money to establish. The articles allege that the company used the program and the university to legitimize and promote OxyContin by placing unlabeled curriculum materials in Sackler School courses, having employees regularly teach courses on opioids and working with people at Tufts to create pro-opioid patient materials.

Tufts involvement with Purdue continued in recent years, even after the company pleaded guilty in 2007 to misleading regulators, doctors, and patients about OxyContin’s potential addictiveness, according to The New York Times

In response to the Attorney General’s report, Tufts announced it would investigate its ties to Purdue. Patrick Collins, Tufts' spokesperson, released a statement in January saying in part, "The information raised in the Attorney General’s lawsuit against Purdue Pharmaceuticals and other defendants is deeply troubling. We will be undertaking a review of Tufts’ connection with Purdue to ensure that we were provided accurate information, that we followed our conflict of interest guidelines and that we adhered to our principles of academic and research integrity. Based on this review, we will determine if any changes need to be made moving forward."

Noticeably absent from this response and Monaco’s recent email is whether the university plans on releasing the findings of the investigation. Tufts community members are concerned the findings will not be released.

"The response from Tufts has not been encouraging," Nathan Foster, a 2018 graduate of Tufts University and author of one of the op-eds, said. "They just put out a bland PR statement and nothing else. They’re not being transparent about this."

In February, Foster, along with other community members on Tufts’s Boston campus, formed an activist group called "Sack Sackler" to pressure the university to take action. The group’s first action has been to create a petition that calls on the university to divest from the Sackler family and ensure such a conflict of interest never develops again.

Besides releasing the investigation's results, the group asked the university to create a community oversight plan for current and future donors, rescind any Purdue-sponsored curriculum, publicly recognize any research conducted with a conflict of interest, change the name of all institutions named after the Sacklers, donate money to opioid treatment programs and revoke Raymond Sackler's honorary degree, in addition to other awards and acknowledgments given to the Sackler family.

The petition, which has been circulated across the university through Facebook, newsletters, flyers, word-of mouth, has about 240 signatures from students, alumni, faculty and other community members. Foster said that the initiative has garnered wide support from the Tufts community.

"The Tufts community is clear on this," said Foster. "We want our medical research to be used to help people, not wealth donors."

For those involved with Sack Sackler, the issue is one of academic integrity and ethics.

"Purdue didn’t have patient best interest in mind, all they cared about was profits and sales," said Daniel Fritz, a graduate student in the Sackler School and leader in the Sack Sackler group. "As a medical institution, a tie to an organization like that is untenable."

Nafis Hasan, a graduate student at the Sackler School involved with Sack Sackler, said the consequences of Tufts relationship with Purdue are bigger than just Tufts.

"This is so harmful when there’s so much anti-science sentiment out there and our credibility is already threatened because of the anti-vaccine movement and climate change deniers," said Hasan.

Beyond the issue of Tufts’s involvement with Purdue, those involved in Sack Sackler are adamant that the university needs to be more open about who it takes donations from and how that money is used.

"The lack of transparency with donors is very concerning," Fritz said. "We need a more democratic, community oriented system for deciding who to take money from."

At this time, Tufts does not release any information on its donors to the public.

"We don’t know if they still receive money from the Sacklers or Purdue,” said Foster. “But we do know their money isn’t worth compromising our values.”

In addition to increased openness with donors, the Sack Sackler group also wants transparency with the pending investigation.

“We want this investigation to happen," said Hasan. "We hope they [the administration] are doing the right thing and we want to be involved in the process."

Other sections of the Tufts community have also stepped up to voice their opposition to the university’s involvement with Purdue Pharma.

Earlier this month, a group of medical students presented a letter to Monaco signed by over 220 students calling for many of the same demands as Sack Sackler, with the notable addition of the elimination of the master’s in pain research program and a re-evaluation of the university’s conflict of interest policies.

"I want to be able to tell the patients I will be treating for opioid use disorder that the institution I trained at had no connection to the opioid crisis," said Nathaniel Meyer, a medical student at Tufts. 

The Tufts Community Union senate, a representative undergraduate governing body, unanimously passed a resolution this month demanding the administration release any information regarding “potential complicity” of the administration in letting Purdue “unduly influence” the School of Medicine’s curriculum, according to The Tufts Daily.

Similarly, the Tufts University Faculty Senate approved a resolution this month calling on the university to release all information regarding its relationship to the Sackler family and any associated businesses.

According to The Boston Globe, even the mayor of Somerville has called on Tufts to consider removing the name of Sackler from their schools and buildings,

Despite these calls for action, the administration at Tufts has been adamant that no action will be taken until the investigation is complete, which will likely be months from now.

In response to Monaco’s email, Sack Sackler said in a statement that while they are encouraged that the investigation will be independent, they strongly disagree with the decision to delay action until the investigation is complete.

"More than enough information is publicly available to justify the removal of the Sackler name from Tufts buildings and programs and the revocation of Arthur and Raymond Sackler’s honorary degrees," the statement reads. "Anything less is a betrayal of the countless members of the Tufts community impacted by the opioid crisis."

Foster said that Tufts will face escalating pressure from the community if it continues to take no action. An artist-activist group called The Opioid Spoon Project announced Monday that Tufts has been selected as the first recipient of their "opioid spoon," a symbolic measure meant to pressure Tufts to eliminate its relationship with Purdue. 

Other institutions, such as Harvard University, are also facing calls to separate from the Sacklers, according to the Harvard Crimson.

While the leaders of Sack Sackler acknowledge that there may be legal and financial barriers to breaking away from the Sacklers, they see more downsides to remaining tied to them.

"Most of us are of the mind that regardless of legal issues, financial issues, the ethical question here is too important," said Fritz.

In the meantime, Sack Sackler is focusing on increasing awareness of this issue amongst the Tufts community and letting the public know about the university’s ties to Purdue.

"We want Tufts to live up to all that it can be," said Foster. "And that means holding them accountable."

Tufts University declined to comment on this article.

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